‘‘Classic Ballroom Dances’’ is a poem that does not lend itself readily to thematic analysis. In the first place, the poem consists of just a single sentence, and the sentence is not even grammatically complete. Thus, it never really makes a statement. Rather, the poem consists of a series of images. Nevertheless, it is possible to discern the glimmerings of a theme. One theme that links the images is that of old age. The first word of the poem is grandmothers, followed by a reference to old nuns. Later, the evangelist is said to be shuffling, suggesting the slow, hesitant walk of an elderly man. In the final stanza, reference is made to ancient lovers who are dancing. The very topic of the poem, classic ballroom dances, suggests something from another age or another generation. These references to age have a counterpoint in the references to schoolchildren; the nun is said to pull schoolboys by their ears, and a . . . Read More
Grandmothers who wring the necks
Of chickens; old nuns
With names like Theresa,
Marianne, Who pull schoolboys by the ear;
The intricate steps of pickpockets
Working the crowd of the curious
At the scene of an accident;
the slow shuffle Of the evangelist with a sandwich board;
The hesitation of the early-morning customer
Peeking through the window grille
Of a pawnshop; the weave of a little kid
Who is walking to school with eyes closed;
And the ancient lovers, cheek to cheek,
On the dance floor of the Union Hall,
Where they also hold charity raffles
On rainy Monday nights of an eternal November.
Unlike many poems, ‘‘Classic . . . Read More
Charles Simic has come to be regarded as one of America’s most important poets—a remarkable achievement given that English is not his native language. ‘‘Classic Ballroom Dances’’ is the title poem in Simic’s 1980 collection of poems, Classic Ballroom Dances. The collection won the Harriet Monroe Poetry Award and the Poetry Society of America’s di Castagnola Award in 1980. Like nearly all of Simic’s poems, ‘‘Classic Ballroom Dances’’ is brief, consisting of just sixteen lines, and is written in simple, straightforward language. Its purpose is not to outline a point of view, tell a story, or develop a situation. Rather, its purpose is to evoke an image by drawing a number of implicit comparisons between the people’s activities and dancing.
It can be difficult to classify or attach a label to contemporary poets like Simic, including the broader category called Modernism, given that most draw on a wide range of poetic traditions for their inspiration. . . . Read More
In Shakespeare’s time, medicine was little more than trial and error mixed with a great deal of superstition. Little was known about proven treatments, and disease and germs were not understood. Sanitation and hygiene, even among the upper classes, was rudimentary at best. Streets were filled with garbage and raw sewage, which spilled over into the rivers and lakes. Rats and vermin abounded, and no one made the connection between these conditions and the sicknesses that killed people. Typhoid, syphilis, influenza, and plague exacted a toll on life expectancy, as did poor nutrition, which led to life-threatening anemia and dysentery. Many upper-class women covered their faces with white make-up, which contained high amounts of lead. The make-up poisoned, and even killed, many of them.
Because these health dangers were not understood, the work of physicians often included astrology. Astrologers and doctors, such as Tommaso de Benvenuto da Pizzano (Shakespeare’s possible . . . Read More
In Shakespeare’s time, marriages were usually arranged. A love match was unusual, and even more unusual was a woman choosing her prospective groom. Bertram’s objection to marrying Helena is rooted in these traditions. Because he is a count, he would have expected to marry someone of a similar status, not a commoner with neither wealth nor property to her name. A man would base his opinion of his prospective wife on the extent of her dowry, or marriage portion, which would include any land, money, or other goods, such as jewelry, which would become the husband’s property upon marriage (as would his wife). Helena had none of these, so Bertram considered her an inappropriate wife, regardless of her talents and personality.
As for the marriage ceremony, the king in All’s Well That Ends Well dispenses with tradition, which would have necessitated the Crying of the Banns, a public declaration of the couple’s intent to marry on three successive Sundays in their respective . . . Read More
Shakespeare based much of All’s Well That Ends Well on Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a collection of one hundred novellas wrapped around a frame story. Boccaccio was a Florentine writer of the fourteenth century who wrote in the Italian vernacular, thereby making the Decameron popular among the middle class, as opposed to scholars who shunned anything not written in Latin. The Decameron, which means literally ‘‘ten days,’’ is ostensibly the tale of ten people (seven women and three men), who are hiding out in the hills above the city of Florence during an outbreak of the Black Plague. Each day, they take turns telling stories in order to pass the time. Many of their stories are retellings of folk tales.
Boccaccio’s Decameron influenced many writers, beginning with Geoffrey Chaucer, also a fourteenth-century writer, who adopted some of the Italian writer’s ideas for The Canterbury Tales, which is commonly acknowledged as the first work of poetry written in . . . Read More
In literature, ‘‘comedy’’ refers to a story with a happy ending and a ‘‘tragedy’’ is a story with a sad ending. The earliest comedies date from fifth century B.C.E. Greece, and that style is known as Old Comedy, which was known for lampooning famous people and events of the day. Beginning in 320 B.C.E., the style of comedy changed to reflect stock characters and situations. This style was dubbed New Comedy, and often featured a love story of a young couple as part of the plot. Some other famous Comedies include Dante’s Divine Comedy and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. All’s Well That Ends Well is also a New Comedy. When Bertram is confronted with evidence of his shenanigans and Helena outwits him in fulfilling his impossible demands, he undergoes a complete change of heart. Helena obtains her prize—Bertram. Diana is also saved from a meager existence, the king’s life is saved, the countess gains a daughter, and . . . Read More
The bittersweet tone of All’s Well That Ends Well is established by the play’s older characters, especially the Countess of Rossillion and Lafew, both of whom have suffered the loss of loved ones and express their patience with those of the younger generation.The countess sympathizes with Helena’s passion for Bertram, because she was once young and in love herself. Likewise, Lafew forgives Parolles for being a traitor and gives him a second chance by offering him a position. The King of France offers his sympathy to Bertram on the loss of his father, and tells the count he is too young to fight in the war. Ultimately, the happy ending of the play is in the fact that the elders will take no retribution out on the younger generation for the follies to which they have subjected themselves. A counterpoint to this is Lavatch, the aging clown, who talks dirty, impregnates a chambermaid, and then changes his mind about marrying her. He still acts like a child, and his position as a . . . Read More
The abrupt ending of All’s Well That Ends Well is partly responsible for giving the play its problem status. Does the play end well? If so, for whom? Most modern critics conclude that the ending is unsatisfactory and unconvincing, even though it provides the required comedic resolution whereby the hero and heroine are joined at last. They have a hard time believing that Bertram could enter into a happy marriage with Helena after being confronted with her deception. Early commentators, however, tended to have less trouble accepting the ending and argued that Elizabethan audiences, familiar with the folk tales on which the play was based, would not have found the ending lacking. Some argue that Shakespeare lost interest in the character of Helena once she succeeded in securing Bertram, and he proceeded to a hasty closing scene. Others sense a difficult future ahead for Helena and Bertram because, even though he now acknowledges Helena as his wife, he has demonstrated no change of . . . Read More
The bed-trick in All’s Well That Ends Well pervades much of the commentary on the play and intersects with the discussion of marriage. Commentators tend to focus on whether Helena’s use of the bed-trick is justified and lawful and whether it provides a means for a satisfactory ending to the play. Critics who believe Helena’s switch with Diana is justified argue that as Bertram’s wife, Helena had every right to take Diana’s place and consummate her marriage, thus saving both Diana and Bertram from dishonor. Helena saves a maiden from what would have been a grave mistake, and she keeps Bertram from committing what would have been an unlawful act of adultery. By thus saving Bertram, and, as a result, securing his ring and carrying his child, Helena is an agent in restoring the dying kingdom. Those who find Helena’s actions unlawful note that Helena is actually encouraging Bertram to engage in adultery (even though Helena knows . . . Read More